Service dog

The temptation to fudge the facts and say your pet is a service animal is obvious. With so many destinations sporting "No Pets Allowed" signs, dog owners often have to leave their animals at home, or if they're not willing to leave their four-legged friends behind, they're forced to skip shopping, eating out or staying at some lodging.

Even when dogs are allowed, there may be extra fees — but not for service dogs. No pet fees for motels and no baggage fees for airlines. Service dogs can ride beside their owner in the cabin of the plane, train or bus, and at no charge. Under the Americans With Disabilities Act, businesses that serve the public must allow service dogs accompanying their disabled handler, even if dogs are not usually allowed. This applies to all businesses open to the public, including restaurants, hotels, taxis, stores, hospitals, theaters, health clubs, parks and zoos.

We'd all love to travel, dine and shop with our dogs. We know better than to leave our dogs in the car when we go inside a store, and we've heard horror stories about flying dogs in the cargo section. As a dog lover, have you ever wondered, "Would it really be so bad to just fudge the facts a bit and get Fido access as a service dog?"

Privileges of Therapy, Service and Other Types of Working Dogs

There are a variety of types of dogs who provide a service to their human handlers, and the different titles come with different permissions.

Service dogs have been trained to do things for their disabled partners that the humans could not do themselves, and therefore, they're allowed, by law, just about anywhere their handlers go, with a few exceptions.

A therapy dog, on the other hand, is trained to provide comfort to people, usually non-family members, in need of affection and interaction and is not an official service dog. There are specific certifications required for therapy dogs, but they are not entitled to any of the privileges of service dogs.

Somewhere in between these two fall emotional support dogs (ESD), who provide comfort for their handlers with a disability by their mere presence. They have no individualized training to perform tasks and don't qualify as service dogs, but they still have some access rights. They must be allowed in all housing and in airplane cabins. However, they are not entitled to enter businesses and other public places where dogs are usually prohibited, and owners may be required to present a signed note from a mental health professional stating the need for an ESD.

A psychiatric service dog (PSD) does qualify as a service dog. A PSD helps its handler cope with mental disabilities, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, autism, anxiety disorder and schizophrenia. They might alert to panic attacks, help with mobility if the handler is dizzy from medication, remind the handler to take medication, interrupt self-mutilation, provide room searches or safety checks, or perform a variety of tasks specific to that handler’s needs. PSD teams are entitled to the same rights as other service dog teams.

What's the Harm in Faking It?

The owner of one fake service dog I know sees nothing wrong with what she's doing. Because her dog is well-mannered, she considers him a good advertisement for allowing service dogs in public places. But there are reasons good behavior isn't an acceptable reason in many establishments.

Believe it or not, some people don't like being subjected to other people's dogs, regardless of how cute and well-behaved those dogs might be. Not to mention, some people are allergic to dogs, and a canine-filled airplane cabin can make their flight miserable. Rentals that don't allow dogs often do so to protect their investment from damage, or other tenants from barking, but have no choice but to allow dogs claimed to be service dogs.

Worse, disasters can happen. Two service dogs were on a bus in Portland, Ore., when the larger one attacked the smaller one, killing it. The small one was a legitimate service dog, but the large one was an imposter.

Fake service dogs can misbehave to the point that the public resents real service dogs, attacking other dogs, jumping on people, knocking merchandise off shelves, relieving themselves indoors and more. As more fake service dogs make their way into public places, the people they affect have become more begrudging and suspicious of all service dogs. Businesses can ask the service dog to leave if it is disruptive or threatening, but not all realize that's an option.

Why It's Not a Victimless Crime

Owners of legitimate service dogs are concerned that bad behavior of untrained fakers will lead to more difficult times for trained service dogs. "A dozen years ago when I started out in service dogs, access was actually much easier,” says Kirsten Richards, administrator of Service Dog Central, a website community of service dog partners and trainers. “Over the intervening years, as more and more fakers enter public accommodations, good will toward legitimate teams has been steadily eroding. Where once I saw slight smiles, I now see distrust and tension when I enter a new business."

And Richards points out that it's not a victimless crime, as a change in regulations now requires emotional support dog teams to contact the airline 48 hours before the flight. "If one of these fakers needs to get on a flight at a moment's notice to be at the bedside of a dying relative, they can just choose to leave their pet at home. Not so for the vet with a PTSD service dog who must contact the airline at least 48 hours in advance and submit paperwork in order to fly because he needs to be accompanied by his dog in order to make the flight in the first place.

Think You Could Spot a Fake?

You might think it's easy, but you probably couldn't unless the dog is misbehaving. Service dogs can be of any breed, size or shape. They don’t have to wear a vest or carry ID. Besides, vests, patches and certificates are readily available on the Internet, with thousands listed right now on eBay.

Entire websites are devoted to selling service dog identification, with handy tips (once you've paid their registration fee) on what to say if confronted, and links to psychiatric services that will, pending your responses to an online test and a couple of phone "sessions," provide you with a letter stating you need an emotional support dog.

Some of the tasks service dogs perform are outwardly apparent; others, such as being a diabetes or seizure alert dog, are not. The U.S. Department of Justice permits businesses to ask only two questions:

1) Is the dog needed because of a disability?

2) What task has the dog been trained to perform to mitigate the disability?

Why Businesses Don't Speak Up

Business owners are leery of confronting service dog handlers because of the possibility the dog is a genuine service dog and that the owner could bring a lawsuit if they violate their rights by asking about the person's disability, demanding service dog identification, charging extra fees or isolating or otherwise treating the service dog team differently from other patrons.

Wouldn't Mandatory Identification Solve the Problem?

The identification issue causes controversy even among owners of real service dogs. On one hand, requiring real service dogs to be certified and have proper ID seems the obvious solution. It would remove liability from business owners who reject dogs without an ID and also remove their liability for allowing a dog who later causes a problem.  

But many service dog owners balk at the idea of certification. They see mandatory certification as expensive and unfair to owners of real service dogs and, ultimately, difficult to accomplish. How do you test a seizure alert dog? Who decides if your balance support dog is really a help? And what if you leave your service dog ID home by accident? Besides, many non-disabled people could still certify their dog to do some task they claim they need.

What About Standardizing Certification Requirements?

Requiring all service dogs to matriculate from qualifying training programs won't fly either. Many people train their own legitimate service dogs, because they feel it is either more effective or less expensive.

Neither is necessarily true, says Richards, who does train her own dogs, but only after she apprenticed for a year with an experienced trainer who already had 40 years of advanced training experience.

She's now training her second puppy, but it's costly and time-consuming. "I've spent $5,000 on this successor puppy with the cost of buying him (a well-bred puppy with ancestors cleared for common genetic disease), care, screening and training," she says. Getting a trained service dog through a program can be considerably less expensive.

No universal certification programs exist to determine if a service dog is adequately trained.

The Prevalence of the Problem

It's hard to say just how widespread the issue is. One airline alone, JetBlue, estimates that more than 20,000 emotional support and service animals are expected to fly with the airline this year. But there's no way to know how many are legitimate.

If we know of one or even a handful of fakers, does that mean it's so commonplace laws must be changed? It's undeniable that there are fakers, just as there are perfectly healthy people parking in handicapped zones or collecting disability. But just as looks can be deceiving in those cases, so can they in service dog cases. But here's the difference: You need a permit to park in a handicapped space, and you do have to jump through some hoops to get disability payments. Imagine the situation if all you had to do was declare yourself eligible.

What's the Penalty for Pretending?

Although fakers are occasionally discovered and prosecuted, most states define the crime as a misdemeanor. In California, for example, it’s punishable by a jail sentence of not more than six months and/or a fine of not more than $1,000. Other states have lower fines.

Ultimately, maybe the real penalty is a guilty conscience — or a bit of bad karma. Because while most of us would love to take our dogs with us everywhere, few of us would elect to actually have a disability making that privilege necessary.